DECATUR — A plan to legalize marijuana is not exactly high on the to-do list for local lawmakers and law enforcement, but their constituents may be more ready to roll with the idea.

A plan is being floated that would make Illinois the ninth state in the country to legalize marijuana for recreational use.

The proposal would allow residents 21 and older to possess, grow or buy up to 1 ounce (28 grams) of marijuana and license businesses to sell marijuana products subject to regulation.

Supporters say it would help fill Illinois' multibillion-dollar budget hole with $350 million to $700 million in new tax revenue, while detractors worry about social costs.

Mixed public opinion

“If you look at Colorado and the other places, it’s worked,” said Katie Witry, a 22-year-old Millikin Student from Aurora. “And our state is really bad off money-wise, so it’s a win-win for everyone.”

Kye Ramos, a 19-year-old Millikin student from Chicago, said he has seen first-hand the benefits of marijuana. Along with doing a class research project on the subject, Ramos said his father, a disabled veteran, has used marijuana to treat his post traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s helped him out a lot, and I know it’s helped out a lot of other people, too,” he said.

But the societal cost is not lost on Christl Smalley.

The 55-year-old Decatur resident said she’s OK with medical marijuana, but worries about the effects legalization could have with those already battling problems with alcohol or other drugs. In addition, Smalley was not trusting of the state to make good use of the potential revenue.

“I don’t think it would help the state financially, the state would find a way to waste that money, too,” she said.

Statewide, residents seem to have joined the rest of the nation in becoming more accepting of legal marijuana.

A poll released Monday by the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale showed 66 percent of Illinois residents support or strongly support legalization of recreational marijuana if it is taxed and regulated like alcohol. Of those in support, 45 percent said they strongly support legalization.

Only 31 percent of voters oppose or strongly oppose and 3 percent answered otherwise.

Support drops outside the Chicago and collar county area, as 54 percent of downstate voters supported or strongly supported legalization. 43 percent of downstate voters either oppose or strongly oppose legalization, while 3 percent either did not know or refused to answer.

The poll was conducted from March 4 to 11 with 1,000 randomly selected registered voters and a margin for error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Law enforcement wary

The idea of medical marijuana for the chronically ill is appealing for Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider and Decatur Police Chief Jim Getz.

It's less so for legal recreational use.

Schneider was frank in his opposition to legalization, saying he has heard of problems from law enforcement colleagues in Colorado. Specifically, his concern is with possible illegal growing operations and an increase in impaired driving arrests.

“We've seen a trend where in some months we have more drug-impaired drivers than alcohol-impaired driver” Schneider said. “It's problematic to public safety when people drive on marijuana thinking it's harmless but they are seriously impaired.”

Getz was less forceful than Schneider when asked about legalization, saying he hopes state lawmakers do their research on the issue and not make any rushed decisions.

“I think they really need to do their homework before they pass the legislation,” Getz said. “This is not something they should take lightly. This is something that needs to be investigated.”

The points are similar to those made by the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, which also opposes the measure. Its associate director, Ed Wojcicki, told The Associated Press that legalization would be "an enforcement nightmare."

Colorado law enforcement have publicly said they have struggled at times to keep up with enforcing the laws of the state, which has the highest rate of youth marijuana use in the nation, according to the most recent data available from a federal drug-use survey.

The numbers are not all dour for Colorado though, as the state’s Department of Public Safety report showed a 6 percent decrease in the violent crime rate statewide from 2009 to 2014. In addition, Denver experienced a 2.2 percent decrease in violent crime rates and an 8.9 percent reduction in property crime offenses, according to research from the Drug Policy Alliance.

Lawmakers reluctant

Local lawmakers asked about the proposal showed little enthusiasm for going forward with legalization.

State Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, described himself as "old-fashioned" with his opposition to legalization, feeling it acts as a gateway drug to harder, illegal substances.

“I think it raises more problems than it could possibly answer,” he said. “With legalization, I don’t agree with it at all.”

However, Mitchell did say he would be open to some decriminalization in relation to marijuana.

State Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, expressed similar sentiments about marijuana being a gateway drug, saying that legalization would increase the rate of homelessness and poverty as well as put a financial strain on social services who help people with addiction.

“You’re going to have ill effects with legalization, especially if Illinois is the only Midwestern state to do this,” Righter said.

State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said in an unrelated conference call Monday morning that he has not yet taken a stance on the matter, focusing most of his attention on school funding and a "grand bargain" budget bill.

He did say he hopes the proposed plan starts a dialogue among lawmakers about legalization and that more information comes out in the coming months during hearings.

“I think we’re in the initial stages here, and I’m not going to reject or accept any proposal at this time,” Manar said. “What I want to do is what I also do, I want to hear the pros and cons of both sides of the issue, and I want to make an educated decision.”

State Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, was unavailable for comment Monday due to a death in the family, according to a spokeswoman from her office.

State Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, could not be reached for comment.

The plan has been sponsored by state Rep. Kelly Cassidy and state Sen. Heather Steans, both Democrats from Chicago.

Cassidy said with Illinois’ own budget woes, as well as the economic boost and increased tax revenue seen in other states that have legalized marijuana, it was at least worth having the discussion.

But both agreed pitch could be a tough sell. They plan to have conversations with lawmakers, interest groups and the public this spring but won't move legislation forward in the current session.

For Righter, the conversation about legalization has to be about more than just revenue.

“Is it in the best interest of the people, especially young people, for government to say, ‘Hey, this is OK as long as you got the money to pay the tax’?” said Righter. “I don’t think that’s the right message to send.”

All lawmakers contacted said they have heard little from constituents on the matter, though Righter said he has generally heard concerns about the impact of legalization on younger residents.

Even if the plan does get through the General Assembly, the outlook that Gov. Bruce Rauner would sign it into law is murky at best.

During an appearance last week on a Chicago radio station, Rauner said his friends have told him stories about addiction problems in Colorado, adding he was skeptical on legalizing without more "thoughtful" analysis.

“I'm not a believer that legalizing more drugs will help our society, so I’m not philosophically enthusiastic about it, but I’m also open to what actually works to make life better to people,” he said.

The state may not have much wiggle room with the federal government, anyway.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in February that his department is reviewing an Obama administration memo that gave states flexibility in passing marijuana laws.

Huey Freeman and Justin Conn contributed to this story; rvoyles@herald-review.com|(217) 421-7985

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Government-watchdog reporter for the Herald & Review.

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